Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

“They never believe me”

Still shattered from his ghastly encounter with the crawling figure in the bootleggers’ secret cellar, in “The Twin Thing,” young Luke Crain takes solace in the company of his “imaginary friend,” Abigail. Even with proof in the form of a ferocious rip in his pajamas, his parents tell him the monster he saw in the cellar is all in his head. “They don’t even believe me about you,” he laments to the girl in the blue dress, the girl from his drawings, the girl none of his family have seen. “You believe me, don’t you, Abigail?”

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Abigail does believe him, it seems, but almost no one else does. That’s still true when Luke is an adult, and for sadly good reason. Luke’s heroin addiction, and the lies he’s told to feed it, means that no one who knows him can afford to believe him for long, for their good or his. His painfully obvious betrayal by fellow recovering addict Joey (Anna Enger) shows just how cruel it can be to extend trust to someone who will exploit it over and over, with a cheerful smile plastered over their treachery because the smile is what sells it.

Nell believes him, as a child and as an adult, and not only because her own haunting has met disbelief. “It’s a twin thing,” he explains to a friend, to his family. The connection they share means Nell will believe him, and believe in him, well past the point of plausibility.

“This house is bad, Dad. It’s bad,” young Luke tells Hugh Crain, and I believe him. I’d believe most of what this bespectacled little boy might say to me, including that it’s a good idea to send him for a ride in the dumbwaiter just this once. (In the previous episode, he slushes out, “It’s a perfect kid-sized elevator!” and I knew Theo wouldn’t deny him, because as a responsible adult, I’d be half-tempted to indulge him. Okay, one-quarter-tempted.)

There are echoes of E.T.’s Elliot in child actor Julian Hilliard’s bright-eyed insistence, echoes that only intensify when he’s paired with Henry Thomas, who famously played Elliot in 1982. But the things visiting Luke in the night are more sinister, if less interesting, than Elliot’s squat little botanist from another world. The creature from behind the bootleggers’ barrels (there’s a B-movie title for you), though a little too overexposed to be scary for an audience, would be a mind-bending terror in real life, for child or adult.

Playing on the house’s old speaking-tube systems, Luke and Nell together hear a papery voice gasp “Clara?” (She knows he’s afraid even though he denies it. How? “Because I’m scared,” she answers, reasonably enough. It’s a twin thing.) But Luke is alone when he sees the reflection of that old woman shining in the brass of the tube’s horn-like end.

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And there’s Abigail, the little girl Luke seems happiest with. Wherever her sympathies prove to lie, she’s a ghost, too, though one Luke (also so far) finds comforting, not creepy, though his drawings (another of Hill House’s roster of generic horror-movie tropes) make her isolation apparent

Luke is also haunted by the towering slim figure with a greatcoat and cane, who wants his hat back… the oversized hat Luke has taken to wearing, even in bed. This figure clunks its cane noisily along the corridors of Hill House, but its feet float aloft, inches off the ground, as it pushes itself along like a gondolier poling down a canal.

Toward episode’s end, it’s revealed that one of Luke’s childhood terrors, the things none of the Crains ever believed—except Nell—has followed him out of Hill House, out of childhood. Even on busy streets, Luke sees the looming, slender shape of the derby man dogging his heels. It’s a slightly clumsy extension of a common metaphor of habitual drug users as “haunted,” but the sheer dogged persistence of the derby man’s appearance, coupled with the restrain of keeping his back to the camera, makes this one of the most effective and, well, haunting hauntings in the series to date.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Screenshot: Netflix

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With so many scenes set on darkened city streets, this episode had every chance to drive home the notion laid out so prominently in the second episode: When the lights flash twice, it’s time to come home. Failing to seize this opportunity, Hill House squanders a ready-made chance to bolster the whole series with a quick flash of emotional impact and narrative consistency.

The flash in which the derby man takes the guise of Luke’s mother feels like a cheap attempt to churn up intimacy. Despite its individual attention on Luke, the towering, thin figure of the derby man is just one more in a parade of stock horror figures. It’s personal for Luke because it’s stalking him, even outside of Hill House. But it’s not really personal, in the way the best scares are. It’s pure dumb luck: Luke lived in its house, and Luke liked its hat. Rather than having any personal resonance for Luke, in this adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House, being haunted is a lottery, one no one wants to win. (Shirley Jackson readers, you see what I did there.)

The best haunted-house stories aren’t scary because they’re filled with a long lineup of ghosties and ghoulies. They’re scary because they want something from the haunted. Maybe they put their targets in a moral quandary, like the specters of It Follows and The Ring. Or maybe they look inside their inhabitants, their targets, and see not just what they fear but what they feel, what they crave, and let their victims find those desires within the house. In The Shining, Jack’s demons aren’t just ghosts who float around spookily. They are his demons, bending his vanities and vulnerabilities to their uses. The Turn Of The Screw (adapted as The Innocents) plays on the unnamed governess’ explosive emotional intensity, and on her self-aggrandizing view of herself as a bulwark against perverse forces. The Tell-Tale Heart is the fevered account of a man hounded by his own guilt. And yes, the original The Haunting Of Hill House is the ever-tilting tale of a woman desperate for (and desperately fearful of) affection being torn apart by the tantalizing offer of utter acceptance.

Luke’s ghosts in “The Twin Thing” are ghastly, but that’s all they are. In adulthood, the symptoms of Luke’s haunting are the signs of withdrawal, but that detail develops years after his haunting begins. The thing that really haunts Luke is his family’s disbelief, and as painful as that backstory is, surely that incredulity is shattering by the time the family begins to gather in the wake of Nell’s death. Even the loss of his twin is muffled dramatically by the fact that in times of trouble, he just as often turns to a ghost as to his twin sister. Turn after turn, Hill House misses opportunities to create emotional depth.

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Stray observations

  • Bolting back into their shared room with derby man at his heels, Luke dives under his bed without a thought to alert his sleeping sister to the impossible danger heading her way. I guess that’s not a twin thing?
  • For the third episode in a row, Olivia gives one of her children a meaningful box. For Shirley, she decorates a velvet-lined box to serve as a coffin for her kitten. Theo receives a pair of gloves, intended to keep her psychic insights under her own control, in a handsome old glove box. In this episode, she gives Nell a box of “cool old buttons,” which Theo uses to allay Nell’s too-reasonable fears of The Bent-Neck Lady.
  • Like Theo, Luke is seen pacing off steps. The explanation for his obsessive counting off of seven steps is shown in flashback, where he teaches Nell to count buttons—one for each Crain—to ward off her fears. But there’s another unspoken reason: When Nell is afraid, or when he is, it’s seven small paces from his bed to hers.
  • There’s a certain impudence in taking the name of a Shirley Jackson work—one of her impressive oeuvre of women disbelieved, disregarded, and condescended to— only to gut it, and then put the lamentation that “no one ever believes me” in the mouth of a boy, and a man, over and over.
  • The best ghosts are personal in one way or another, and I have my suspicions about one of the ghosts in Hill House being deeply personal. But that will have to wait for future episodes, to see if my inkling is right.

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